Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers in English are used to define or describe another part of the sentence. But what happens when the placement of a modifier doesn't follow the rules and is misplaced in a sentence? For example, take the following sentence:

Misplaced Modifiers Misplaced Modifiers

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    "She wore a red woman's dress."

    The modifier in this sentence is "red," but the meaning of the sentence could be easily misunderstood as it is not clear what is being modified... Is she wearing the dress of a woman who is red, or is she wearing a red dress that is made for a woman? When modifiers are not in the correct position in a sentence, they are known as misplaced modifiers. Keep reading to see some different types and examples of misplaced modifiers.

    Misplaced Modifiers in English

    Let's take a look at the meaning of misplaced modifiers in English grammar. Check out a definition below:

    A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is not placed close enough to the person or thing it is modifying. Because of this, the sentence can often seem awkward or ambiguous, leading to misinterpretations of its meaning.

    As a reminder, a modifier refers to a word, phrase, or clause that defines or describes another element of the sentence. For example, take the sentence, "I put the vase on the table." Here, the modifier is the phrase "on the table." It is used to give more information about where the noun (the vase) is.

    An example of a misplaced modifier is:

    "She said on Tuesday she would hand in her essay."

    The meaning of this sentence is unclear due to the misplaced modifier "on Tuesday." Does this sentence mean that she said this on a Tuesday or that she said she would hand in her essay on Tuesday?

    Misplaced Modifier Rules

    Misplaced modifiers do not follow the rules of typical modifiers, as they are in the wrong position in the sentence. Because of this, they often stand out and seem odd.

    Misplaced Modifiers Paperclips StudySmarterFig. 1 - As their name suggests, misplaced modifiers are not in the right place!

    So how do we fix misplaced modifiers? The simple rule for fixing a misplaced modifier is to make sure the modifier is in close proximity to the thing it is modifying. This usually involves rearranging the sentence's word order to ensure that the modifier is next to the thing it is modifying. For example:

    Misplaced modifier Fixed modifier
    The waiter served food to the guests on silver platters.The modifier "on silver platters" appears to be modifying "the guests."The waiter served food on silver platters to the guests.The part of the sentence being modified is "food."

    Fixing a misplaced modifier ensures that misunderstandings do not occur, as it will be clearer what the modifier is referring to.

    Types of Misplaced Modifiers

    There are three main types of misplaced modifiers:

    1. Limiting Modifiers

    2. Squinting Modifiers

    3. Misplaced Phrases and Clauses

    Let's take a look at each of these in more detail:

    Limiting Modifiers

    As the name suggests, limiting modifiers are used to limit the meaning of the modified word. Examples of limiting modifiers include:

    • Just

    • Only

    • Almost

    • Nearly

    • Hardly

    • Even

    A sentence's meaning can change if a limiting modifier is not placed before the word it is modifying. This means limiting modifiers can often cause misunderstandings. For example:

    Notice how the modifier can change the meaning of the following sentences:

    "The man just shook my hand before he left." (he did nothing else besides shaking their hand)."

    "The man shook just my hand before he left." (he shook their hand, but nobody else's).

    "The man shook my hand just before he left." (at the very moment before leaving, he shook their hand).

    Squinting Modifiers

    Squinting modifiers are words or phrases that could refer to either one of two things in a sentence. They are usually adverbs. For example:

    "Making changes in your lifestyle quickly affects your mood."

    Here, the adverb "quickly" can refer to two elements in the sentence. Does this sentence refer to making quick changes in your lifestyle, or does it refer to affecting your mood quickly?

    Misplaced Phrases and Clauses

    Misplaced phrases and clauses are exactly that; phrases or clauses that have been misplaced in a sentence. For example:

    "She wore a bracelet on her wrist that was too small."

    This could be misinterpreted as her wrist being too small (instead of the bracelet). A clearer way to word this would be, "She wore a bracelet that was too small for her wrist" or "she wore a small bracelet on her wrist."

    Misplaced Modifiers Examples

    Take a look at some examples of misplaced modifiers below:

    "Ben bought a chair from the seller that had a broken leg."

    The misplaced modifier in this sentence is "that had a broken leg." It could be implied that the seller had a broken leg instead of the chair leg itself. To make the meaning clearer, the sentence could be re-written as "Ben bought a chair with a broken leg from the seller."

    "Mick and Judy stared at the sunset sitting on their balcony."

    The misplaced modifier in this sentence is the clause "sitting on their balcony." This could be interpreted as the sunset itself sitting on the balcony, whereas it should refer to Mick and Judy sitting on the balcony. This sentence could instead be written as "Sitting on their balcony, Mick and Judy stared at the sunset."

    "The boy who was cycling quickly got tired."

    This is an example of a squinting modifier. The adverb "quickly" could refer to either the boy cycling or getting tired.

    Misplaced Modifiers Boy riding a bike StudySmarterFIg. 2 - A squinting modifier refers to either one of two things in a sentence.

    Misplaced Modifier vs. Dangling Modifier

    Both misplaced and dangling modifiers are concerned with the relationship between the modifier and the thing it's modifying. When misplaced modifiers are used in a sentence, they are placed too far away from the thing they are modifying. On the other hand, when dangling modifiers are used, the subject of the sentence itself is missing.

    Let's compare the two:

    Misplaced ModifierDangling Modifier
    We saw four cats on the way to work.Were the cats on their way to work? Driving home, the snow started falling.Here, the subject of the sentence is missing. Who is driving?
    On the way to work, we saw four cats.The clause "on the way to work" modifies "we." As I was driving home, the snow started falling.Here, the subject of the sentence is the pronoun "I."

    Misplaced Modifiers - Key takeaways

    • A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is not placed close enough to the person or thing it is modifying.
    • A sentence containing a misplaced modifier can often seem awkward or ambiguous, leading to misinterpretations of its meaning.
    • The simple rule for fixing a misplaced modifier is to make sure the modifier is in close proximity to the thing it is modifying.
    • The three types of misplaced modifiers are limiting modifiers, squinting modifiers, and misplaced phrases/clauses.
    • When dangling modifiers are used, the subject of the sentence itself is missing.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Misplaced Modifiers

    What is an example of a misplaced modifier?

    An example of a misplaced modifier is "she wore a necklace around her neck that was too small." This could be interpreted as her neck being too small (instead of the necklace). A clearer way to word this would be, "She wore a necklace that was too small for her neck" or "She wore a small necklace around her neck."

    What is the most common misplaced modifier?

    Some of the most common misplaced modifiers are the limiting modifiers: almost, hardly, just, merely, nearly, and only.

    How do you identify a misplaced modifier?

    If the meaning of a sentence is not clear as a result of a modifier, this usually means that the modifier is misplaced.

    How many types of misplaced modifiers?

    There are three types of misplaced modifiers:


    1. Limiting modifiers

    2. Squinting modifiers

    3. Misplaced phrases and clauses

    What are the rules for misplaced modifiers?

    The main rule for fixing misplaced modifiers is to move the modifier closer to the thing it is supposed to be modifying.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false?A sentence that contains a misplaced modifier always has a clear, straightforward meaning.

    How many different types of misplaced modifiers are there?

    When a misplaced modifier is used in a sentence, the meaning can often be...

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